Real Life

Over at Mad Genius Club my friend (is that what he is?  It would seem our relationship would be much closer, we’d been sitting with the murky water of publishing side by side in the same trench for 15 years now.  We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up from a distance, we’ve shared the victories (few) and the kicks in the teeth (many) and talked each other out of the extreme dismals so many times.  You’d think he’d be more a brother-at-arms, a co-combatant, something closer than the much-abused word “friend.”) talks about realistic fiction and how to create the illusion of reality in fiction.

[One of my favorite such moments, in a biography of Christopher Marlowe came when he was arrested — probably while working a sting for the crown — for “uttering” false coin.  The author dropped the “this or that might have been going on, or this or the other thing might be true” and said “so there he was late at night, probably in wholly inappropriate clothing, likely dying for a smoke, and repeating that he must talk to Walsingham, but he also let slip, recorded as part of arrest that he didn’t see why the Queen had the right to coin, and he shouldn’t, since he was as good as her.”  It gave me suddenly the human side, and how young the man was and what I would call “reckless Libertarian” in an age that had no word for it.  Suddenly it made the creature of shadows and spying, double and probably triple agent for merciless powers real, and flawed and damnably young.]

See, even “realistic” non-fiction is still fiction, because reality is boring, incoherent, often intrusive at the worst possible moments, and full of coincidences, and just plain not very good storytelling.

The funny thing is that even non-fiction falls under that “realistic fiction” thing.  You can’t actually read the life of Julius Caesar or Catherine Howard, or Joan of Arc.  You read a narrative of it, which, in the hands of a skilled writer, can give you an impression of who that person really was, like… like when you meet a friend and catch up on what has happened the last ten years.

What you get in that case is a highly edited biography.  There will be some pivotal moments the friend won’t even tell you, himself.  You know, he’ll say, “And I decided I really was not suited to the insurance business.”  He won’t say, “It was that morning, I had a headache and was prone to my cyclical depression, and then I had to deny three claims, and I said bugger it all.”  Or he might, but it’s not guaranteed.  He might no longer remember exactly what made the luster go from the job, forever.

In the same way, your own image of your own life is sort of that edited biography.  I get a lot of “uh, what was I thinking?” when I open long-packed boxes, particularly if they belong to the “apnea years” when dan had apnea so bad neither of us was sleeping.  Or perhaps to the years when the kids were tiny, and we were either low on sleep or ill because we lived low on sleep.

I mean there are things I know how to do: like, oh, make a bed, or cook.  And you can say “you can do it in your sleep” and you kind of can, except you don’t do it the same.  Sometimes I find notes for novels and go “what the actual heck, surely by 2007 I knew a long, sustained whine wasn’t a novel.”  But either I didn’t, or at the time I was depressed/under the gun/too tired to realize what I had weren’t note for a novel but various walls to drop on a character.

If I ever do anything to merit having my biography written, it amuses me that so much of the last 10 years will be subsumed in something like “And then Sarah started getting seriously hypo-thyroidal and it affected her functioning.”  Maybe people will mind marks of the illness in my books.  Heaven knows they are probably there, as more and more, with my memory/verbal ability failing, it felt like all my energy was going towards hiding how badly things were going.

OTOH maybe that part will be lost, and they’ll attribute the hypothyroidism issues to something else, growing pains or whatever.

Even I can no longer remember everything that was going on when.

Yesterday was a very good day in some ways, but completely lost to writing.  In any biography it would be completely passed over.

Those state of the writer updates I do now and then is just enough to catch you up on what’s been going on, but not in anyway detailed.

I was thinking of the excellent William Patterson biography of Heinlein, a man who changed markedly through his life, and he gives us the times the man changed, and how, and sort of marks the places, but the hundred different ways he changed, and how he grew to be who he was.

Right now my life is working something like this: work like mad, finish work, get very ill with auto-immune, come back to life and work like mad to finish work.

My son tells me it’s not that I’m doing something wrong, and no losing weight will probably not make me get fewer of these episodes (though I am still trying to lose weight, or at least not gain) and no, exercise won’t help that much, except maybe for reducing my stress levels.  He says auto-immune syndrome (which I passed on to both boys) naturally gets worse with age, and whatever I die of eventually it will probably be because I lost that particular fight.

But none of this matters, in the long run, in my bio, just like last night’s dinner with friends won’t matter.  In the end it’s “the work of our lives” that matters.

Sure in my case that’s writing, to an extent.  At leas that was the realization that hit me like something very sharp when I was in the hospital dying of what would later be diagnosed as intercellular  pneumonia, and I realized that despite everything I’d done so far, the one thing weighing on me was all the worlds that would die with me, in my mind.  And that I was supposed to write, which I did, from then on, in a serious way, though it took me four years to sell a novel.

So I know writing is part of what I’ll regret not doing when my personal Ragnarok draws near.

The other part I hope is raising the kids to where they can fly on their own, and making whatever genetic contribution matters in the long run (hopefully not the curse of auto-immune.)

But it is not for us to make the decision of what will matter.  I wonder if Shakespeare would be shocked to know what a contribution he made to Western civilization when I’m sure his goal was pushing his children another rung up the social ladder of his time.

We just do what we can with our limited vision at that moment, but in the end all the stories and summarizing of life makes no difference, and it’s what we accomplished that stands and falls on its own, long after us.

All we can do is do the best we can and hope that it’s all for the best.  Everyday.

101 responses to “Real Life

  1. I have long pondered the deficiencies of English in defining “friend.” Many use that term for one who is really little more than an acquaintance and there seems scant scale-up for one such as you describe. The correct term would seem to be “comrade” but we all know why that term cannot be employed.

  2. As I’m sure you are aware, but some here might not be, Heinlein, after serving five years as a naval officer, was medically discharged due to having contracted tuberculosis. That was in 1934. He was too sick for physical work, which drove him to writing for a living, and his disabilities eventually resulted in his death from emphysema and congestive heart failure. But fifty four years after his discharge.
    May he be an inspiration to us all as we age and approach the inevitable.

  3. Eat right, exercise, don’t drink, don’t smoke, die anyway.

  4. One of the milestones was achieved when I published the first book; but I’m not really done with that story until the trilogy is finished, and it does weigh on my mind. Very few other people care. But it will be the source of the ‘will to live’ if I every need it, and that means I’m a writer.

    Which I already knew.

    The more I talk to other writers, the less unusual I find it.

  5. I tried making this point with Literary plotting.

    Someone made an argument to me that in Literary, the meander, the maudlin, the venal, the extraneous, with a plot that goes nowhere and does nothing about characters who do nothing and life kind of happens around them was more realistic than genre work. First, I asked her what her life was like if she thought those kinds of people (I don’t know why I find the characters in Literary novels so gross and off-putting but I can’t be the only one) were realistic (most people I’ve met are pretty decent under their own terms). Second, I asked if she’d ever read a biography.

    The reason someone has a biography written about them is because they are notable and interesting (or a publisher is trying to funnel money to a preferred political candidate in circumvention of election laws) but the skill of a biographer is still in deciding what to include and what to leave out. Teddy Roosevelt was a pretty interesting dude, but there are lots of moments of his (and everyone’s) life that went nowhere and meant nothing. The boring bits as well as the bits that might have been interesting but were either redundant or contrary to the story the biographer was trying to tell. A biography done in that kind of Literary style would be dozens of books long and the reason the person was special enough to warrant biography would be buried under a mountain of extraneous information.

    It’s not a lie, it’s a story about their lives edited to both be accurate to their character, and to entertain. The popular biographer finds that story, the river that runs through the subject’s life, and prunes off all the extraneous creeks and streams that wallow off the river and end in swampland. When doing that well, a story emerges with a plot and a focus and often ends up closer resembling a genre story rather than a Literary story. Not in trappings, but in the flow of the river.

    Yet Literary is considered more realistic? By what standard? Because it’s pointless? And life is pointless? Is that it? I’m missing something because it can’t possibly boil down to that.

    Steve

    • I don’t know why I find the characters in Literary novels so gross and off-putting but I can’t be the only one

      My in-laws, for reasons I decline to speculate upon, gave me a gift of John Irving’s (then new) best sellinh Hotel New Hampshire, a book I would not ordinarily have picked up but, a gift from one’s in-laws entails a certain obligation and Irving is a well-regarded author …

      I might, under threat of death, read another of his works — it depends on how old I am (having reached sixty-four, threat of death seems far less a loss than it did at thirty-two, and the remaining hours more precious, so that spending any of them in Mr. Irving’s world … well.) But when half the narrator’s family was lost in a plane crash (or whatever — not memorable except for my reaction), my primary response was “What a pity; they should have traveled as a family so that no one would have survived to tell the tale of this disagreeable lot.”

      No, I never voiced those thoughts to my in-laws, merely smiled vaguely and murmured the book was “interesting but not really my type.”

    • … it can’t possibly boil down to that.

      If you are trying to persuade the masses that life is pointless and futile and they might as well just accept their lot, yes, that might be the stock they’re cooking down to.

      Literature presents a worldview, a Weltanschauung, which shapes the society it occupies. Ayn Rand’s characters are dynamic, challenging their worlds and bending them to their will. George Martin’s GoT characters destroy themselves and their world in their attempts to rein. Other writers present passive characters around whom events happen, and present those as their prescription of How Life Is.

      I recall a few years back a thesis about children that asserted kids were born with fixed personalities and parental efforts to guide them were futile. Today’s helicoptering parents seem not to have read that book.

      If publishers push pablum, cramming their grey goo down the public throat, it is because they think it best for one and all to accept that view of life and the world’s ways.


      If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again.
      And if you don’t succeed again, just try and try and try.
      Useless, its useless,
      Our kind of life is tough.
      Take it from me it’s useless, trying ain’t enough.

      Since people ain’t much good just hit ’em on the hood.
      But though you hit ’em good and hard they’re never out for good.
      Useless, it’s useless when they’re playing rough.
      Take it from me it’s useless.
      You’re never rough enough.

      In searching for the lyrics to copy paste, I find I have referenced this before in these parts, back in 2012, where I introduced them by observing “When Brecht & Weill sing it, it’s a delight, when authors spend 500 pages writing it it’s tedious.” Still true.
      accordingtohoyt[DOT]com/2012/03/27/being-human-2/#comment-9656

      • *gleeful happy dance around in a circle*
        Bad news first– you dropped a g.
        Better news– I noticed! I actually am picking up on those homophones!

        • Holds up a “g” — Oh, so that‘s where this came from!

          Ah bin livin’ in the South too lawn.

          (shamefacedly) Actually, if you’re referring to “reign” I meant that as in “rein in the forces they’ve unleashed.” Similar word origins, of course.

          It is so rare that I haven’t committed a typo I reflexively confess when accused.

          • That’s even better– it makes sense with that context, and I actually went ‘wait, that’s the thing for a horse’!

          • My English teacher had me help grade papers for a couple of years– not exactly grade them, more of a teaching thing for me to get to SEE some of the problems.

            I had bad spelling before; I’ve got worse spelling after…..

            • My spelling is (nearly) impeccable, which cannot be said of my typing.

              I look forward to a story about an apprentice witch who is a terrible speller …

    • “Unpleasant people doing unpleasant things and not even enjoying them very much.”

      Agatha Christie had these guys pegged decades ago.

      • That’s one of the problems I sometimes have with mysteries. Sometimes the author is so determined to give people a good motive for killing the victim, you can’t help but want to have been the perpetrator yourself by the end of the story.

        Granted, this is a trap that a typical writer or series falls in only once in a while, and it also goes with the territory (ie, it’s a common trope in the mystery genre) but it happens enough that it can get irksome at times.

    • “I don’t know why I find the characters in Literary novels so gross and off-putting but I can’t be the only one.”

      You’re reacting to their general lack of moral character. They have even less than your shiftless second-or-third cousin the part-time drug dealer, who shows up drunk and begging for money at family events, weddings and funerals.

      “Literary” characters are mopes with zero stamina, zero ambition, zero personal honor and zero common sense. That’s why they seem to drift through those stories so listlessly.

      I don’t know why anybody would want to write about such nonentities, much less read about them. But the whole Hugo Awards are dedicated to them, apparently. I must have not gotten that memo.

      I recall being forced to read The Collector by John Fowles in high school. Very, very literary at the time. (Hell of a thing to make a kid read, eh? We had a quite ‘progressive’ English teacher.)
      The entire plot: some schmuck wins the lottery, buys a house in the country, kidnaps a girl and keeps her in the basement. She dies, the end.

      I spent a lot of time in English class demanding of Ms. Progressive: “Why doesn’t she KILL him and escape? Its not realistic!” Her rejoinder, if I recall after all these years, was something like “but then it wouldn’t be interesting.”

      Most unsatisfactory. I wrote a new ending where the captive girl kills the son of a bitch with her thumbnail. Take that, Ms. Progressive. I think she gave me a C.

      • “but then it wouldn’t be interesting.”

        Yeah, that’s why MacGyver only ran seven seasons, 139 episodes and its corpse reanimaterd only last season.

      • Dang it, Teach! It ain’t interesting NOW!. Zip, zero, zilch, NADA!

      • It’s interesting to read a book about a man who a girl who is stolen, never rescued, and dies in captivity? Sounds like your teacher had a few screws loose. Granted the girl becomes and remains a victim. What’s interesting about that?

        • I saw a comment over at Instapundit where someone mentioned another person’s work. (I followed the link, but haven’t listened to what happened to be a podcast about a book, but the idea seems sound.)

          The person claimed that conservatives speak in a language of civilization vs barbarism, liberals in terms of victimhood and oppression, and libertarians in terms of freedom and coercion.

          With that framework in mind, it’s easy to see how a liberal would love a book where the girl becomes and remains a victim at the hands of an oppressor, whereas a conservative or a libertarian would get irked at it, and wonder why the girl doesn’t rise up and kill her barbaric coercer to return to free civilized society….

          • I think that’s a different conservative/liberal. We talk more in terms of “leave me the f*ck alone” which IS the language of freedom.

            • I really need to learn more about these notions, but the initial suggestion just resonates with me for some reason…

              I think the reason why conservatives and libertarians in America tend to intermingle more than liberals and libertarians is because in America, freedom is a cornerstone of civilization, and in America, when a conservative wants to “conserve” something, it’s often an effort to conserve freedom.

              Of course, the notion that conservatives value civilization is cemented in my mind in no small part due to listening to a lot of what Bill Whittle has had to say….but then, Bill Whittle also likes to talk a lot about the importance of liberty.

              America certainly has a certain knack for really messing up political definitions! (Granted, the definitions are a bit squishy in the first place…but still…)

              • If you include “civilized people are those generally able to act like decent adults in American culture,” it deconflicts with Sarah’s version.

                Especially if included in the observation that you can’t just jump steps from “Tribal” to “American society” and have it work.

  6. I was fortunate that I was able to 99% cure my auto immune disease by eliminating wheat and refined sugar from my diet but this does not work for everyone, I know.

    I listened to my doctors and specialists for fifteen years and was very sick, decided one day to take matters into my own hands and here I am five years later fit as fiddle. Wheat and sugar play having on our metabolisms and doctor training mostly ignores nutrition.

    If ranting was olympic sport, I could rant for Canada about food supply, what it does to our health, and how doctors are trained to deal with resultant health issues.

    • It appears that wheat and sugar play having on your typing, or maybe it’s WordImPerfect just doesn’t understand havoc.

    • I eliminated sugar and wheat anyway, when I went low carb. Which keeps SORT OF under control. Note sort of is not “actually”

    • Isn’t “auto immune” just a fancy way of saying “I make myself sick”?

      • I thought it meant, “cars can’t hurt me.”

        • Inconceivable!


          Is there anybody who doesn’t find them painful?

          • I stand corrected (with fingers in ears).

          • I thought it was quite nice.

            • I’m not as big of a Cars fan as my husband, but it’s not bad.

              Now Cars, the show where I have an excuse to praise my dad’s beloved car, the classic Hornet– that’s far beyond nice.

              • Drove a ’74 Hornet for a bit. $SISTAUR was convinced I couldn’t drive well because of it. See, I’d been driving stick for aaaages. And the Hornet had an automatic (Torque Command!) transmission… and that wasn’t bad. “Pawing” the air for the stick wasn’t a big deal. The crazy-wide brake pedal that extended well into where the clutch would have been? Damnable thing, that. There were some very sudden stops.

            • Sometimes it is neither the band or the song. I like the Beatles, well mostly. When I first heard it I rather liked Hey Jude. After weeks of it being played every third song on ALL pop stations in Philadelphia I became sick of it.

      • Yes and no.

        People are responsible for what they eat and drink, I agree, but there is a lot of garbage available to eat that will make people unhealthy and that’s not made clear by doctors.

        Also, food pyramid recommendation of low fat, high carb diet was complete nonsense and who knows what damage that has caused over the decades.

      • And the meds make it so people make us sick too (lowered immune system so I don’t attack myself) *sigh

    • They can’t pay attention to proper nutrition– humanity never got the memo it’s supposed to be standardized, and they’re not trained to look at the right stuff to figure out what’s up.

      See also, the approach to female fertility.
      Use to be to “fertility,” period, but guys are a little easier to help with simple problems– say, someone who wears briefs can switch to boxers to up his sperm count, most of the time. (You might remember in bio class the mention that sperm have to be a couple of degrees lower than body temperature.)

      Female fertility seems to be a whole bunch of cycles, and worse they’re interacting cycles– so my first daughter was born at what a computer program would insist was something like the 16th trimester, because it measures from last, ahem, outwardly visible evidence of a lady’s cycle, and now I’m able to use these ovulation test strips to SEE the levels of the hormone that triggers ovulation barely showing up, irregularly, and too low to trigger ovulation in most women. (I don’t know, because we can’t actually confirm it with an OTC test….)
      but the point is that it’s incredibly complicated, and when it comes down to “do a complicated thing that you MIGHT be able to do OK with” vs “easy for the doctor, takes no research and works great for an OK number of cases” they’re going to go with the easy one.

      I’ve got a theory that this is why “alternative practitioners” get so many loyal followers– they’re looking for something different than the norm, they’re sorting by something different from the norm, and they get results that the norm will NEVER get. But if they were made as standard as the norm, they’d be no better and probably worse because they’re fixing a different problem.

      I think it’s called a category error?

      • … guys are a little easier to help with simple problems

        While not as complex as female fertility (really, once one learns all the things that can go wrong, it is a wonder any babies get made!) male fertility can be a little more complicated than you’ve indicated, as testified by this article from the morning papers:

        Men, eat these foods to boost your sexual performance
        Boosting your performance between the sheets not only improves your love life — it can also improve your health.

        New research has revealed that men who have sex several times a week can improve their circulation which in turn gives them healthier blood vessels.

        But what can men do if their libido is falling flat and getting it on with their partner is the last thing on their mind?

        Well according to nutritionists, what you eat can have a massive affect on your sex life and making simple changes can spice up your relationship.

        Charlie Turner and Lee Foster, founders of Neat Nurition have come up with seven foods that can boost your libido. So what are you waiting for, get to the supermarket now!

        [Abridged]
        Dark chocolate
        Nuts
        Garlic
        Broccoli and celery
        Fish
        Oats
        Whey protein

        [END EXCERPT]

        Summary: almost all of those tweak hormones (boost testosterone, reduce estrogen) or help blood circulation.

        I leave debates over what constitutes “performance” for another time. Funny, we (our society) rarely seem to discuss female performance in that room of the house. Should someone notify Dr. Helen?

  7. I’m currently reading [wading through] a book about women in the Song Dynasty. One thing the author keeps pointing out is that we can’t trust what is supposed to be material written by women, because men wrote under female names about what they thought women would be thinking. Women shaped the world as mothers and wives, but they were invisible, or supposed to be invisible. Apparently the scholar-writers of the time had trouble sorting out the ideal of the invisible but valuable woman from the active and necessary woman, and it bothered them greatly that Life and ideals failed to work together.

    [I’m about to start rooting for the arrival of the barbarians, at this point. And I’m really, really tired of the overuse of “gender” for “sex.” Really tired.]

    • … they were invisible, or supposed to be invisible.

      I don’t know that anybody wants to truly know their mother’s opinion of them — they just want Mom’s approval. This is especially the case among them what do the least to merit that approval.

      [Notus Grammaticus: as “anybody” is a collective noun, the pronoun takes the plural, yes?]

    • I refuse to be the only one with this running in my head now.

      • OK… let’s see, make that: With this running in his head.

        I might like you folk but I don’t want nobody doing laps in my brain..

  8. Real Life? Pah! Highly over rated.
    Reality in fiction? Even more over rated. Fiction is where we go to escape, because life is boring and stupid. Those are the GOOD days when nothing goes wrong.

    Good fiction is when that thing you’re afraid of happens, and you beat it! Yay!

    • Good fiction depends on my mood. A lot of the time good fiction is where adventures are had and no one gets hurt.

      When I’ve had a bad day or am feeling poorly (mentally or physically) I like happy fic.
      I never want to read a story about my fears. It would be hard to climb out of my anxiety or pit of despair.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I get pretty desperately lonely sometimes. When my brain is malfunctioning more than it is now, I get pretty worried about losing the few RL human contacts I have.

        Phantom’s thought inspired me. One of the projects with a major hold on my imagination involves a lonely person stranded away from their friends, finding a way back, but their friends are gone. Making new friends and finding the old ones is a major part of the emotional travel that character does throughout the story. If I like the results of doing it without planning to, I may enjoy the results of doing it on purpose.

        Philosophical advice on how to create art may be a matter of taste and subjective. Or maybe I’m just full of nonsense. (At this point, I can’t tell.)

  9. It helps to know/acknowledge the conscious or unconscious biases of the biographer. Many years ago I read two biographies of the late Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Both described various times/items in her life accurately. One was a sympathetic view, the other decidedly not. It certainly was intriguing to read both of them within, as I recall, the same year. Reader was given totally different viewpoints of the same events. Interesting.

  10. I don’t know about this movie, but it may have the best film quote of 2017:


    “Shouldn’t we wait for backup?”

    “This isn’t a land of backup, Jane. This is a land of you’re on your own.”

    • It could be the best; it’s certainly DAMNED GOOD. I would say mighty fine, too.

    • they’re in the land of ‘she’s an FBI agent who never would have been sent to that location’

      • On a mild counter-argument, my husband was offered a position with the US Gov’t that paid well and included family coming.

        ….it was in Saudi Arabia.

        Quoth he: “I have three blonde daughters. F**** off.”

        • But…but…but… didn’t you consider that it is an excellent opportunity for your husband to advance and for them to experience a different world culture on somebody else’s dime?

          I do hope you understand that I am not really serious on that. The makeup of your family probably didn’t even enter into the minds of the people who made him the offer. I have gotten to an age that what people don’t think through rarely surprises.

      • You are not taking into account the effects that the pressures brought to bear by the proponents of the cult of social engineering has had on all branches of the government. Some one some where whose greatest skills were pushing paper and pleasing those people in Washington who are in charge of the budgetary allocation might well have assigned her to the area.

  11. Mrs. Hoyt, you know all the skevoids and arrant liars who claimed you were making up the whisper campaigns, blacklisting, and ideological crappola you faced in the field?

    Point them here:
    http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html?utm_campaign=vulture&utm_source=tw&utm_medium=s1

    About halfway down you’ll find that the only YA author willing to speak on record was indie.

  12. Yes, I am fighting my personal autoimmune disorder and eventually the damage from it will get me… so I am with you. I just try to do what I can day-by-day. And this time, Foxy helped me stay with the living. (I don’t know if I was far gone or not… although the doctor was quick to put me in ICU). I do know that when I don’t have energy. I do what I can. When I do, I write like a son-of-a-bitch.

  13. Part of the problem with biographies is that many of them are posthumous too. You have the newspaper articles, journal entries and public words of a person, some reminiscences of those who knew them, and the author’s guess at some reactions and feelings. Even those done before death, with access to the individuals memories will still be incomplete because the author chose this question instead of that one.

    I was showing my mom some old newspaper articles that had her family included. Saw one about her appendectomy. Great. A fact, an incident in her life I’d know about but didn’t know the date of. Well right below that article was a brief blurb about her brothers and cousins being taken to see Bambi. When I showed my mom the articles she blurted out “That’s when that was. I was so mad because I wanted to see Bambi and I was in the hospital. I never did see it in theaters.” Her reaction and the movie thing we’re things I’d never known and probably wouldn’t have come out in a journal entry remeniscence or in an interview about her life.

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